Maher’s idea is to provide legal, social and economic protection for the neglected quarry workers through changing existing labor laws and union structures so that they recognize and include these workers. To Maher organizing quarry workers is only the first step towards a societal recognition of the rights of Egyptians who work in the informal economy.
Over 40 percent of Egypt’s labor force works in the informal economy. They are garbage collectors, street vendors, quarry workers, fisher folk, agricultural and construction workers, and millions of others who work in jobs that often bring high occupational risks and few legal protections. By focusing on quarry workers, who number two hundred thousand and are among the most exploited workers in the informal economy, Maher draws attention to the neglect and abuse of informal laborers and pushes for greater attention to their rights. He helps quarry workers connect with each other, learn of their rights, and pressure for greater protection by law and in practice: safer working conditions, job security, and compensation to their families in case of accidental injury or death. He reaches employers as well, providing practical suggestions of equipment to improve worker safety and tax and legal advice; in addition, he helps to establish a rapport between employers and employees that will guide greater compliance to protections across the board. The organization he established in 1996 to carry out his work now operates in sixty-two villages, twelve of them predominantly quarry communities.
The informal economy in Egypt employs millions of people of different backgrounds and genders in activities such as small-scale manufacturing, handicraft production, petty vending, mobile agriculture workers, quarry workers, fishermen and small supply and retail business. Especially given growth—the population of Egypt increases by 1.1 million annually—an increasing number of people (six hundred thousand every year) seek employment. While national statistics indicate a 10 percent official unemployment rate, nearly 40 percent of people in Egypt are employed in the informal sector. Because the economic difficulties are expected to continue, the Egyptian government will increasingly rely on micro enterprise ventures and the informal sector to sustain the labor market: “Small and micro enterprises provide 77 percent of jobs in the non-agricultural private sector and the government expects informal sector enterprises to employ half of the new entrants to the labor force over the next twenty years…” (Vess). The informal sector is an integral part of the Egyptian labor market.
Other statistics indicate that the informal sector includes at least 3.8 economic units responsible for creating six million jobs annually or 36 percent of the total labor force. It is also estimated that the informal sector contributes 20 percent of the GDP and represents around 82 percent of total small enterprise units.
The most important feature that characterizes the informal sector is that the employees have no job security, and have no legal, social or health rights. Among this large sector are the quarry workers who represent at least two hundred thousand workers in Egypt—i.e. at least 5 percent of the informal sector. Similar to others informal workers, the quarry workers in Egypt are not recognized by labor laws, have no access to occupational safety, social or heath insurance or protection. These workers are not recognized officially in the Ministry of Labor. Therefore there is no venue for this group or their representatives to voice their concerns and demands.
Due to the dangerous nature of quarry work, the incidence of death and maiming within this sector is very high, reaching 15-30 percent depending on the location and management of the quarry. The workers are not only unaware of their rights, they have also no legal rights as they are not legally hired or officially contracted by the quarry owners. Therefore, there is also no job security. In cases of death or injury, the compensation, if and when given to the family, is arbitrary and depends on the owners. Due to lack of legal rights and the legal existence of these workers, their families have no access to social security or heath insurance.
According to the studies carried out by Maher in Minia, from the ten thousand quarry workers in Minia, 44 percent are illiterate, half have high school or university degrees, and 6 percent are still in school. There is no age limit; his study showed that 23 percent of the workers are under eighteen years old, 31 percent are between ages 19-25, 30 percent are between 26-35 and the rest are thirty-six or older.
Maher’s 2001 study of the workers in Minia showed that 92 percent of the workers have no other source of income and are the main source of income for their family. Family size in Minia is high due to lack of education, the rural nature of the governorate and the high rates of illiteracy. Thus Maher’s study showed that 20 percent of the workers have families of more than eight persons, 66 percent of the workers have families of 5-8 persons and only 15 percent have families of fewer than four persons.
Given that the average family size in Egypt is five persons, we estimate that this idea will directly serve more than one million people in Egypt given that it is estimated that there are at least two thousand quarry workers in the different governorates of Egypt.
It is important to note that unions and syndicates in Egypt are weak in general and usually include only those who work in the formal sector. To date there are no organizations that work for and try to organize those working in the informal sector. Traditionally, informal employees have been the most difficult group to organize since they lead invisible, sometimes illegal, professional lives and are therefore not subject to the same regulations, laws, or standards as their formal counterparts. Therefore, Maher wants to set up a model that could be replicated with other groups working in the informal sector.
Starting in Minia in Upper Egypt, Maher brings together quarry workers to talk about their problems, learn of the rights afforded to workers in the formal economy, and involve them in designing strategies to guide reform. His work with this group does not only focus on providing different direct services to the workers and their families but also from the start he decided to help this sector lobby for its rights. His direct services include literacy classes to the workers and their families, micro-credit opportunities to the wives or the mothers of the workers, reaching out and removing one hundred working children from the quarries and offering them education and alternative and safer job opportunities, civic and legal rights education to the workers and in some cases the quarry owners among other things.
Because workers in the informal sector work outside the jurisdiction of labor laws and are not recognized by the Ministry of Labor, Maher saw that gathering information about this group was important an important initial step for two reasons. First, an overview of the people, their educational backgrounds, income levels, would help them to grasp—and help others to grasp—the scope of the problem. Second, this information would offer baseline data against which improvements could be tracked.
Outreach to the broader public, employers, and the government is another important aim. With the workers, Maher and his team maintain updated fact sheets, newsletters, and pamphlets. He has used his institutional newsletter to alert the public, policy makers, officials and the workers themselves to the dangerous working conditions and the unjust legal status of this sector. Three papers were also prepared and given to the popular elected local council in Minia and to select Members of Parliament. He has produced a film about quarry workers and their plight and has attracted national media to illustrate their stories to national audiences.
Maher’s advocacy and educational effort has reached six thousand workers so far and succeeded in securing a number of gains for the Minia workers. First, they now have a branch of a workers’ syndicate at the Minia governorate level which means that for the first time this informal group has been recognized and has a voice to convey their demands. The workers and employers are more aware of the rights of workers and are applying occupation safety measures in their work environment. Practical advancements, such as the design and introduction of a safer machine for breaking rocks, offer improved conditions and help employers see that the value of his effort, which is one not only of demanding protections but of proposing solutions as well.
Maher has a clear plan and goals for the next five years. First, he wants to pressure the Ministry of Labor to establish a unit in the Ministry for quarry workers, thus formalizing this job and securing legal, social and health protection to its workers. Secondly, he will improve working conditions by calling for compliance in using safer machinery in the rocks quarries. And finally, he wants to help the quarry workers see a new role in training themselves and organizing them on a national level and in the other governorates to form their own sub-sectoral syndicate that will represent them and voice their demands. He is creating a precedent and model for organizing informal workers, and has already begun to work with fishermen and construction workers, thus beginning the process of organizing other informal groups.
Maher grew up in a poor family living in a small village in Minia in Upper Egypt. For preparatory and intermediate education he had to walk miles to reach his school. He is the only child among his siblings to be educated at all. His elder brother refused to continue education and his sister was prevented from doing so after sixth primary because the school was 8 kilometers from home and the rural community did not accept that a girl would go so far for school. Because they were poor, and resources were scarce, Maher remembers that he and his siblings learned to be creative and innovative early on: they could not afford to buy toys, so they designed and made them themselves. His was, on the whole, a happy family; the circumstances of poverty do not have to beget misery or mean breaches of rights.
Maher did not go to university, but he sees himself as being educated and has read widely; growing up, books offered exposure and direction. Two books affected him deeply: The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peel and the Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Ferrari. He credits the first with giving him the strength to conquer obstacles and the second with helping him to see that marginalized people are the real owners of all resources. At an early age, books influenced his thinking and attitude towards women as well. Coming from a very conservative region in Egypt, Maher had seen all manner of discrimination against women. He endeavored to learn about concrete injustices, such as female genital mutilation and domestic violence; a deep-seated commitment to end discrimination against women surfaced.
Started in 1989, he began to actively work to address gender inequality and support families. He formalized his efforts by founding a community development association, Family Support. In 1995 and in preparation for the Beijing Conference, Maher and the community development association he founded held its first conference on female genital mutilation, which is widely practiced in some areas of Egypt. His work was in Minia, where he invited the leaders from twelve villages. This was the first time that such a sensitive issue had been raised in such conservative communities.
Maher supplemented his family’s income by working in the agricultural sector since age twelve. Therefore he has first hand experience of how those working in the informal sector are exploited, as he and some family members have been exposed to the injustices of not being covered or protected by the labor laws. He first encountered the problems of quarry workers while living and working in Minia on a water and sanitation project with poor families in 1996. He saw that many quarry workers of different ages were injured or killed during work. He also witnessed the miserable aftermath of accidental death, causing families to be grief-stricken and shattered economically due to the absence of legal and health protection.
A self-made man, Maher is highly respected by those who work with him and is known for his commitment and integrity.